Raphael, The Prophet Isaiah

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino was born on the 6th April 1483 in Urbino, Italy. He also died on the 6th April 1520 in Rome, Italy. He was known for painting and architecture and he wielded his craft in the Renaissance period of Italy. His work is admired for its clarity of form and ease of composition and for the concept of the Neoplatonic form of human grandeur. In the Renaissance many of the churches’ teachings were rejected, including that human nature is sinful. Raphael’s humans are beautiful, thus embodying the new philosophy of humanism, or the concept that humans are good.

He was born to Giovanni Santi, a painter, and Magia di Battista Ciarla, who both died when Raphael was a child. His father offered his son lessons and later he joined Perugino’s workshop either as a pupil or as an assistant. Raphael studied the works of his contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He earned the title of ‘master’ at just 17. Raphael was reputed to be engaged to the niece of a friend who was a cardinal but he continuously put off the wedding. Raphael was thought to love women and he was supposedly to die as the result of a night of passion which caused a fever at just the age of 37. This gave him the enduring reputation as a womaniser.

However, there is no doubting that Raphael was a genius at his chosen craft. The Prophet Isaiah, 1512 is just one of his works. His famous works include Transfiguration, 1520; The Sistine Madonna, 1512; The Marriage of the Virgin, 1504; Self-portrait, 1506 and The Triumph of Galatea amongst others. He also found time to work as an architect, building churches and beautiful buildings.

However, it is his painting, The Prophet Isaiah, that I would like to concentrate on in this piece. Stephen chose this painting to illustrate his blog post on understanding Isaiah (go there to see the full picture) and the painting has some interesting features. Note the bold use of colour, the brightness of the light and the fine brush strokes which are almost invisible and give the painting an unearthly quality. This quality is highlighted by the cherubs which adorn the ornate background. The bodies are muscular and beautiful, a feature of his work. However, it is the scroll and the authentic Hebrew writing which is a feature of note and tells us something of what is evolving in the society that Raphael painted in.

Before the birth of the Renaissance, many works that featured biblical themes had illegible scrawl substituted for Hebrew, as the language was considered the work of the devil because of its association with the Jews, the so-called “Christ killers”. However, intellectuals of Raphael’s time wanted to learn the ancient language as, rediscovering history, it came to be considered as one of the four classic ancient languages along with Greek, Latin and Arabic. Hebrew inscriptions could be found on tablets, scrolls, books, shields, framed wall panels and tombstones. Lettered ornaments on sleeves, collars and hems suggested sacred messages coming from the figure or addressed to the figure. Some intellectuals believed that Hebrew was the ‘divine’ language, the language of the angels and it is interesting to note that Raphael included cherubs in his painting with Hebrew clearly displayed on the scroll. Intellectuals even believed that if all societies and peoples learned to speak Hebrew there would be peace and the practice of war would be no more. Kabbalah studies became popular, Christians believing they could unlock the secrets of the Bible by studying ancient Jewish texts and beliefs and thus gaining greater understanding of life’s mysteries. Some Jews were very sceptical of the interest in their culture and others embraced it. However, treatment of the Jewish people did not necessarily improve and the Catholic church still considered them a hostile enemy. Therefore it could be speculated that Raphael was being rather modern and daring by using the original Hebrew script in his work.

Raphael was an artist who painted at the height of the Renaissance and he was a creature of his times. Those times began to loosen the hold of the Catholic church on western society and humanism began to take root. Modern western civilisation can see its beginnings in this era thus making his works very significant indeed.